Made in 1943 by William Wellman with cast that includes Henry Fonda and a young Anthony Quinn, this lesser-known western is a classic. The story is about a lynch mob mistakenly hanging three cowboys on suspicion of cattle rustling and murder. Of course, all of this is thinly veiled criticism of the South. Even the head of the lynch mob is this bombastic old confederate major who stubbornly wears his old army uniform.
All of this is fine and it's a well-made movie, if a little preachy at times. But what caught my attention was a seemingly offhand but creepy remark at the very end of the moralistic end to the story.
Although very much part of the lynch mob, Henry Fonda's one of the silent objectors to the lynching. After reading the dead man's last letter, Fonda gets on his horse to deliver the letter to the man's widow. As if that's not bad enough (I mean reading the letter), Fonda, who had been jilted by an old lover a few scenes ago, says something to the effect of "someone's got to take care of that woman". Weird. Doubly weird when it follows an exchange in which Fonda has just collected $500 in a kitty for the dead man's wife and some banter goes on about what an enormous sum of money that is for a man stupid enough to get himself lynched.
So what's Fonda doing? Following the money? Chasing after a dead man's wife to fill the void left in his own love life? Or, repenting for having been a silent bystander to the crime by assuming responsibility for the widow.
For me the whole movie hangs on this last scene. And from the heavy handed treatment through the rest of it, I've got to wonder if Wellman really intended for this effect.
Cool movie either way. Check it out!